St. Paul's, Chattanooga

St. Paul's is the largest parish in Chattanooga, the mother church of nine Chattanooga congregations, and one of the largest parishes in the Diocese of East Tennessee. It offers two Sunday liturgies during the school year and three in the summer, and it draws parishioners from around the Chattanooga area. The large, brick church building was designed by the noted late-nineteenth century church architect William Halsey Wood and completed in 1888. It features large galleries with seating; an open, airy nave; prominent stained glass windows; and pew seating for about 450 people.

The parish is known for its extensive Christian formation for all ages, and it has strong programs for children and youth. It has, historically, had a commitment to social justice, and its members continue to discern new ways to live that out.

size:  365 ASA [program size]

location: urban

Sunday liturgies:

  • 8 a.m. Rite 1 eucharist without music (ASA about 70)
  • summer only: 9:15 a.m. "summer special" informal eucharist with full music, in meeting space (ASA about 70). This service includes active involvement of children, often with an active learning or service project fitting a theme from the lectionary readings.
  • 10:30 a.m. choral eucharist (ASA about 250)

other liturgies:

  • weekdays, 12:05 p.m. eucharist. 25 minutes in length, designed to fit downtown workers' lunch breaks.

parish website:



Chattanooga is a mid-sized, growing city with a population of about 177,000. In 1969, the federal government declared its air to be the most polluted in the nation, and the decline of heavy industry over the next decade or so added socioeconomic stresses to its woes. A series of strategic decisions, including the redevelopment of the riverfront (completed in 2005) and the building of the internationally recognized Tennessee Aquarium brought new life to downtown, earned Chattanooga recognition for outstanding "livability," and generally improved the tourism and service economy. Other strategic choices, including the implementation of city-provided one gigabit-per-second internet service and the attraction of a new Volkswagen plant to the area, have bolstered other economic sectors.

The population within three miles of St. Paul's is 53% white, 38% African-American, and 6% Latino. The average age is slightly lower than the statewide average (36.75 as opposed to 39.14). Per capita income is $23,853, well below the national average of $33,205. This income is unevenly distributed: median income of whites is about three times that of African-Americans. Compared to the state average, there are more single-parent households in Chattanooga, and adults are less likely to be married. Educational attainment is varied: overall educational attainment is lower than the state average, but the number of individuals with bachelor's degrees or graduate/professional degrees is slightly higher.


The site visit took place on the Sunday after All Saints' Day. The parish exercised the option in the prayer book to observe the feast of All Saints' on this day, with a baptism at the 10:30 liturgy. (The prayer book strongly encourages Episcopalians to reserve baptisms to four calendrical occasions on which baptism is especially appropriate, of which All Saints' and the Sunday following is one.)

The worship bulletins are "trifolds," with a separate, accompanying trifold containing news and announcements. A welcoming message for children and their families is printed in the news bulletins, with information about preschool chapel (which meets from 10:15 until the peace at the 10:30 service), children's chapel (which meets after a children's sermon at the 10:30 service), and the nursery. The news bulletin also contains a brief reflection on the day, the necrology of the parish for the last year (because it is All Saints' Sunday), and a series of announcements about the activities of the parish in the coming weeks (many of these are learning and fellowship opportunities).

8:00 a.m. eucharist

The bulletin begins with a welcoming message that invites the congregation to sit towards the front of the church, to facilitate participation. The small crowd nevertheless sprinkles itself throughout the nave, mostly in the middle and in the back. The congregation is somewhat diverse in race and ethnicity.

The clergy and lay assistants enter from the side, reverence the altar, and go to their places. The presider (the priest in charge of the parish) stands at the top of the chancel steps and says the opening acclamation, collect for purity, and summary of the law. The congregation joins in reciting the Kyrie, and the presider prays the collect of the day.  A reader comes up out of the congregation and reads the epistle from the lectern, after which the congregation recites the psalm. (Confusingly, the bulletin includes an Old Testament lesson and prints the psalm between it and the epistle.) The presider then reads the gospel at the top of the chancel steps, after which the assisting priest (an associate rector) preaches a nine-minute sermon from the pulpit. After the sermon, the presider leads the congregation in the renewal of the baptismal covenant (an option for baptismal feasts without a baptism). The presider uses the introduction to the renewal to link this congregation's action to the baptism that will take place at the later service, a nice touch. A reader comes up from the congregation and reads the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ's Church and the World. The presider leads the confession, delivers the absolution, and reads one of the "comfortable words." He then introduces the peace. The peace is fairly fulsome, with the congregation members greeting one another. The presider makes announcements, lasting three minutes. Those with birthdays and anniversaries in November are prayed over (this happens on the first Sunday of each month), and then the assisting priest sets the table in silence.

Once the presider steps behind the altar, he says, "All things come of thee, O Lord," to which the people respond, "And of thine own have we given thee." The presider then reads a list of those who died in the parish since last All Saints' Sunday, for special remembrance. The presider prays eucharistic prayer II. The congregation joins in the Lord's Prayer. The presider breaks the bread, says the fraction anthem, and gives the invitation to communion. The people come forward for communion at the altar rail, where the two priests distribute wafers and two vested, lay chalice bearers administer wine. After the table is cleared, the presider leads the congregation in the postcommunion prayer. The presider says the longer blessing from the Rite I eucharist, and the clergy and lay assistants process down the center aisle to the back of the church. From there, the presider says the dismissal.

10:30 a.m. eucharist

This is the principal liturgy of the day, following the order for Holy Baptism in the 1979 prayer book. The congregation contains a large number of children and families, and many small children sit towards the front of the nave, where they are better able to see and hear the liturgical action. The congregation is less racially and ethnically diverse than the congregation at the early service.

The choir, lay assistants, and clergy process into the church as all sing the hymn, "For All the Saints." The presider, who is the priest in charge of the parish, leads the congregation in the opening acclamation and the versicles and responses that follow and then prays the collect of the day. A lector comes up from the congregation to read the first lesson, after which the choir sings Psalm 149 (with the congregation singing a refrain). A second lector from the congregation reads the epistle. During the sequence hymn, the deacon and an acolyte, led by the cross and two torches, move down the center aisle in a gospel procession. The deacon reads the gospel in the midst of the aisle. Instrumental music from the organ covers the return of the gospel procession, and then the preacher (an associate rector) invites the children to gather on the chancel steps for a four-minute children's sermon. The children sit on the steps, facing the preacher, who stands with her back to the congregation. The preacher uses a painting by one of the children, pulled from a box, as a prompt for the sermon. She asks the children a series of questions about saints, and she sings a portion of "I Sing a Song of the Saints of God." She then goes to the pulpit and preaches a nine-minute sermon aimed at the adults in the congregation.

After the sermons, the congregation sings a hymn as the clergy process to the baptismal font at the west end of the nave, leading the infant baptismal candidate and her sponsors and family. About two dozen children from the congregation gather around the font for a better view. At the font, the candidate is presented by her parents and godparents. The presider leads the congregation in reciting the baptismal covenant. A lector reads the prayers for the candidate, after which the presider adds the concluding collect. The presider says the Thanksgiving over the Water, during which the deacon fills the font with water. The presider repeats the line, "now sanctify this water, we pray you," three times.  The presider takes the infant from her parents, holds her over the font, and pours water on her head three times with a shell-shaped silver implement. The presider then immediately chrismates the child, using the rubrical option to transfer the action prior to the prayer for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. After the chrismation, the presider returns the child to her parents, and then presents them with a small candle (lit from the Paschal Candle standing near the font). The presider prays the "Heavenly Father" prayer asking that the neophyte be given the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The presider takes the neophyte back from her parents, invites the congregation to welcome the newly baptized person, and carries her up the center aisle of the church, before returning to the font and handing her back to her parents. The clergy, neophyte, and parents and godparents then process back up the center aisle, as the congregation sings "I Sing a Song of the Saints of God" and the presider sprinkle them with holy water from the font. Once they have reached the front of the nave, the presider initiates the Peace. The congregation exchanges the peace with enthusiasm, and then the presider makes brief announcements and introduces the chair of the stewardship campaign. The chair speaks for about three minutes. The presider invites forward those who have birthdays or anniversaries in November and prays over them, before reading the offertory sentence.

The choir sings an anthem, O quad gloriosum, by Victoria while the ushers collect monetary offerings. The money, as well as bread and wine, are brought forward as the congregation sings a hymn, and the deacon sets the table. One large wafer, scored into 24 pieces, as well as numerous individual, one-inch wafers are used. One cup is placed on the altar with a flagon to fill additional cups, as the prayer book encourages, but next to it is a cup-shaped ciborium (bread-box), which undermines the visual effect of the single cup. The presider stands behind the altar, flanked by an assisting priest and the deacon, while the lay assistants and the other assisting priest (the preacher) stand in two diagonal lines with the altar at the vertex.

The presider reads a list of those who died in the parish since last All Saints' Sunday, for special remembrance. The presider prays eucharistic prayer A. The congregation joins in the singing of the sanctus. Sanctus bells are rung once after the words of institution over the bread and again after the words over the wine. They are rung three times at the Great Amen, as he presider elevates the bread and cup, with the deacon looking on. Confusingly, music is printed in the bulletin for the sursum corda, memorial acclamation, and Great Amen, but these texts are said rather than sung. The congregation joins in the recitation of the Lord's Prayer. The presider breaks the bread, says the fraction anthem ("Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us"), and gives the invitation to communion, after which the choir sings another fraction anthem ("The disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread") as the clergy receive communion. The congregation comes forward to receive communion at the altar rail, during which communion hymns and an anthem are sung. The presider and an assisting priest distribute wafers, while lay assistants administer the cup. The preacher and other lay assistants distribute communion in a chapel adjacent to the nave. After all have received, the deacon gives boxes containing consecrated bread and wine to two eucharistic visitors, and the presider sends them forth with a brief commissioning. The congregation joins in saying the post-communion prayer, and the presider blesses them (the seasonal blessing for All Saints' Day in the Book of Occasional Services is not used). The clergy and lay assistants process out as the congregation sings a hymn, and the deacon gives the dismissal from the back of the nave.




Worship Planning and Choices

Worship is planned by the priest in charge, with support from director of music, associate clergy, and a liturgy committee. Long-term planning is done by the priest in charge with the clergy and music staff, mapping out the course of the liturgical year. The priest in charge (who has been made the rector since the site visit) shares this with the liturgy committee, which represents all of the ministries associated with worship, for their input. Then, in weekly staff meetings, the clergy and director of music adjust the liturgy as they review services two to three weeks in advance. Everything is done with an eye towards the goal of inviting people into authentic experiences of worship. The rector puts it succinctly: "our primary goal is that at St. Paul's we offer meaningful and sincere praise to God and are open to the Spirit moving us in worship in such a way that we are empowered to share Christ with others in our daily lives."

The liturgy is "traditional," in that it is straight out of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, but the rector has brought several adjustments to the parish's former practices in order to make the liturgy feel "real, authentic, relevant, and infused with joy and energy." Among them, he has added chanting on a regular basis, encouraged congregational participation in the prayers of the people, expanded the time for the exchange of the peace, and added the "sermon box" as a prompt for the children's sermon. These seem to be achieving their goal: overall, the visitor is left with the impression of a lively, growing, downtown Episcopal parish with lots of young adults and children.

The attention to children is clear—this is a parish that works hard to make children welcome and provides a number of different ways for them to experience worship, whether in an optional children's chapel or in the principal liturgy of the day. This context is crucial. In other places, where kids are not incorporated into the rest of worship, having the children gather at the font for a baptism is not about making it possible for them to see and engage with the liturgical action, because that same concern is not displayed concerning the eucharist. In those places, gathering kids around the font sends a faulty message that baptism is an infancy rite or child's play, though it is neither. Similarly, in places in which children are not seen as intrinsic to the worshipping community, "children's sermons" can become an opportunity for the children to entertain the adults, as the preacher asks them questions that elicit unintentionally humorous responses, causing the grownups to laugh (seemingly at the child responding, a dynamic that is never helpful). Both are examples of an inauthentic gesture towards the inclusion of children that both rings false and carries unhelpful baggage. But at St. Paul's the attention and care for children drives liturgical choices, reflected in the encouragement for them to sit up front and to engage in the liturgical action as full participants. In this sort of context, both the children's sermon and the circle of kids at the font take on a different meaning, and they are felt and experienced as a natural extension of this authentic inclusion of little ones.

Indeed, a professional liturgical critic can find little with which to quibble at St. Paul's, even given that the liturgical choices around baptism can be complicated. In just a couple of instances, a different choice might result in a stronger liturgy. The pouring of the water into the font might be adjusted. The prayer book indicates that this action is to be done immediately before the Thanksgiving over the Water, but in this case the deacon waited to pour until after the presider began the Thanksgiving. Pouring in silence allows those standing nearby to hear the water itself and those with sight lines to see the visual symbol free of the distraction of text. The rubric in the prayer book, when followed, allows the symbol enough space to function. In the other instance, a duplication of movement might be rethought: the presider went up the center aisle twice after the bath and chrismation, first carrying the neophyte at the welcoming and then immediately afterward with the holy water to asperge (sprinkle) the congregation as the procession returns from the font. Once might instead consider a single procession, after the text, "Let us welcome the newly baptized...," with the parents or godparents carrying the newly baptized baby and the presider sprinkling the congregation, as they all return from the font to the front of the nave. That being said, these would be minor adjustments to a strong and effective liturgy that engaged the entire congregation—at all ages—in the sacrament of new birth.